They marched to perfect the American Revolution;
The Civil War and the Harvard Regiment
The 20th Regiment lost 260 from Harvard College and 409 overall, in the nine battles fought during the Civil War. This Regiment was referred to as the Harvard Regiment as so many of its officers, from 1861 to 1864, were undergraduates or graduates of Harvard. Overall, 1,662 soldiers in all Civil War regiments were students of Harvard College.
It is sad to say and so typical of all wars that many die of accidents and illness. To the grieved family the sacrifice is quite shallow. Following were the first two fatalities of the regiment. On July 31st, 1861, at their Readville Massachusetts training station, Company K proceeded to the Neponset River to bath under supervision of their Lieutenant and assistant surgeon. Thomas Tracy was working through his second day in the army and died from drowning while 19 others, hearing his cry, could not find his body for forty-five minutes. Thirty-three days later Herbert Hawley was kicked to death by one of 125 horses as the regiment tried to load them on railroad cars for disposition.
Recruiting was a constant problem. On average, a Union Civil War regiment required 813 soldiers to be certified for combat. Since the 20th took fifth place for the unit with the most casualties, their turnover was far in excess of the 1,662 soldiers associated with Harvard. Recruiting of non-Harvard grads became a necessity to avoid consolidation with other regiments and maintain its Harvard influence.
Beyond Harvard College, the next lucrative and nearly exclusive source of recruits was Nantucket Island. Many of these recruits were descendants of General Glover’s Marblehead sailors that saved George Washington at Long Island and rowed him across the Delaware on Christmas eve. They were strong men and proud of their ancestors.
As incentives, promotions in rank were restricted, even if positions were vacant, if the regiment could not recruit and muster 813 soldiers after their initial term of service. The army obviously instilled this requirement to drive the officers to recruit. Consequently, officers of the 20th, with the assistance of the State Department, recruited in Ireland and Germany: a key sources of immigrant soldiers. Most German recruits did not speak English, therefore, officers that could speak German were an additional recruiting issue.
No one knew if the German recruits would fight. On April 17, 1863, one hundred and sixteen German recruits were received and an additional eighty-three on May 1st. The recruits were parceled among the various companies of the 20th regiment, immediately placed in combat line, elbowing with soldiers in blue that didn’t speak a word of their language. On the first day music was the immediate means of conveying their emotions. The Harvard men showed their sympathy with these new recruits in a strange land with an evening musical performance of Civil War songs. As in the Irish brigades the German recruits wished to show America that they were worthy of citizenship.
From the initial monotony of camp-life the new recruits would march north to Gettysburg Pennsylvania and the impending high water mark of the Civil War. By all accounts, officially in writing and in diaries and letters of the non-commissioned officers, they fought well.
The following are individuals that made this regiment famous in combat.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Brigadier General William Raymond Lee, Henry Ropes, Sumner Paine, Francis W. Palfrey, Edward N. Hallowell, George N. Macy, Paul J. Revere. In addition, Henry Livermore Abbott and his two brothers, descended from officers that served the Continental Army from both sides of the family. All of the above had grandfathers that served in the American Revolution. Contrary to many other Union regiments that served to preserve the Union, the 20th clearly felt this war would correct the omissions in the U. S. Constitution that permitted slavery. They marched to perfect their grandfather’s revolution.
Our tours will summarize their biographies and ancestors. Additional articles are in the planning on the 20th and other sister regiments.
Our Kennedy, Abolitionist and Civil War tours will discuss immigration’s impact on the Union, politics and the changing Boston landscape. You can visit us here, http://www.walkbostonhistory.com/ or comment on this blog for more information.
P.S., The 20th Infantry Regiment, still exists today at Fort Lewis, Washington. A company of this regiment was responsible for the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam on March 16, 1968.
Brevet Lt.-Colonel George A. Bruce, Houghton, Mifflin And Company, the University Press, Cambridge 1906
Harvard’s Civil War: a history of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry/ Richard. F . Miller 973-7444
Touched with fire: Civil War letters and diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 1861-1864. Edited by Mark De Wolfe Howe. 973.78 H73
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